Light vs. Darkness
Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.
Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is obviously all about the dark.
In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against warms (lights), and the light from a fireplace casts a frame as our baddie creeps towards the door.
Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity
Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.
This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated by blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.
Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes or sometimes against them.
Fire and Ice
Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.
Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.
Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.
Nature vs. Mechanistic World
Nature is good while technology is evil.
Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine that no one notices.
Gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow.
Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.
A place of death or metaphorically an encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.
Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.
I used a subway, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.
Haven vs. Wilderness
Places of safety contrast sharply against a dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources
This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.
See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.
Water vs. Desert
Because water is necessary to life and growth so commonly appears as a birth symbol, similar to the way in which baptism symbolises spiritual birth.
Rain, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.
The Desert suggests the opposite.
Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.
— Howard Suber
Heaven vs. Hell
Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. The skies and mountaintops house our gods. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.
See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude
Crossroads = a place/time of decision. A self-revelation occurs. Change or penance results.
In 101 Dalmatians, a chase scene includes a crossroads shot, indicating that there are various possible routes. We don’t know if the villain will find the puppies because this is a maze-like world.
The Artifacts, Slap Happy Larry, 2011.
We also see symbolic crossroads in:
- Garth Pig And The Ice Cream Lady by Mary Rayner
- And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr Seuss
- Crossroads Motif on StorySearch
A puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the search for the dangerous monster inside of oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.
It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.
A strong place of safety which holds treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched.
A strong place of evil, represents the isolation of self
Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.
The Magic Weapon
The weapon the hero needs in order to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight).
Mountains And Valleys
See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.
Generally symbolizes the destructive power of nature or fate.
In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss, and originally started by him), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.
Fog is thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.
A picturebook example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold
Red: blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death
Green: growth, hope, fertility
Blue: highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity
Black: darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy
White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)
Yellow: enlightenment, wisdom
3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle
Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Threes.
- The Three Little Pigs
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears
4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements
Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)
7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol